In a world where “staying healthy” most obviously refers to staying socially distant, washing your hands, and wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, protecting your hearing may not be at the top of your list -- but at Hearing Unlimited, our experienced audiologists want you to know that it should be.
While hearing loss itself can be extremely alienating and debilitating, this isn’t all you have to worry about if you find yourself straining to hear, especially if the severity of your hearing loss is increasing with age. Research shows that those hearing problems may be associated with a secondary health issue: dementia.
What Type of Hearing Loss is Associated With Dementia?
Recent studies have shown that certain types of hearing loss may be associated with mild cognitive decline, which is an early precursor to dementia. Dementia, which affects nearly 50 million people across the globe, is a symptom of cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and is characterized by the following behaviors:
- Difficulties with memory
- Impaired language
- Slowed ability to think and process
- Reduced sense of judgment
Two types of age-related hearing loss have been studied for their correlation with mild cognitive decline and dementia: peripheral hearing loss and central hearing loss. Peripheral age-related hearing loss begins in the inner ear, and is more related to the nerves located there than it is to the brain. Central hearing loss, on the other hand, is caused by a processing issue directly in the brain, causing the additional symptom of reduced comprehension of what patients hear rather than just a decline in auditory performance.
The results of these studies were clear: central hearing loss, which begins in the brain, has a significantly greater correlation with cognitive decline and dementia than peripheral or zero hearing loss.
How Does the Brain Affect My Hearing?
The most important thing to remember about the correlation between hearing loss and cognition is that hearing doesn’t just happen in your ears. The auditory cortex, which processes auditory information that is sent from your ears, is located in the temporal lobe of your brain. Your brain and your ears work together to receive auditory signals, then analyze and decode them for meaning. Your brain then takes the extra step and determines the proper response to what we’ve heard, whether it’s a verbal response when we’ve been spoken to or a reflexive response to an oncoming danger.
As we age, our brains undergo “neurodegeneration,” which refers to a loss of neurons that can reduce our cognitive function. Because hearing begins in the brain, this can also have a negative impact on our ability to hear and process information.
Is This a Normal Part of the Aging Process?
It is true that hearing loss affects nearly 30% of Americans aged 60-69 years, and that this statistic increases to 63 percent among Americans aged 70 years and over. When you factor in the increased risk for dementia in these age groups, it may appear that age is the common factor, and that both hearing loss and dementia are an unavoidable part of aging.
This is a dangerous misconception that leads many people to neglect preventative care for both their hearing and their cognitive ability as they age. Hearing loss doesn’t suddenly begin late in life: whether from noise damage, a lack of preventative upkeep, or another common cause, low-grade hearing loss accumulates over time all the while affecting your cognitive ability. When your brain struggles with a loss of any of your senses, it works harder in other areas to compensate, causing even more deterioration. This results in a vicious cycle in which the hearing centers of the brain become exhausted, your hearing loss continues to worsen and, and your cognitive ability declines, greatly increasing your risk of dementia.
This vicious cycle sounds frightening, and it is something to take extremely seriously. However, the audiology specialists at Hearing Unlimited want you to know that you are far from helpless in preventing both age-related hearing loss and dementia. In next month’s blog, we’ll discuss what you can do to take care of both your hearing and your brain, lowering your risk of dementia as you age.
If your current audiologist has made the difficult decision to close their doors, call Hearing Unlimited. Although we are closed to walk-ins, we are open for normal hours of operation, and we are following strict protocols to keep our environment safe while we continue to serve our patients.
The audiologists at Hearing Unlimited have the expertise to help you maintain your hearing health and prevent injury during this crucial time. Get your healthy hearing plan started today - contact us online or by phone to schedule an appointment, and be sure to take advantage of our services and resources.